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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On bad advice, with
classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

What happened to your column last week? Did you just get fed up with doling out advice? I would, if I had to do it every week.

M J P in Colorado

Dear Mr/Mrs P,

No, last week's non-column was an editor-stranded-in-tornado-in-Estonia problem. (How rare is that????????)

I was here, keen as mustard to dispense balm (or 'blam' as my typing would have it) to the agonised, and pretty hard cheese it would have been for the agonised had any of them actually written in, but, as it happened, they didn't. (My own theory is that, when something as emotionally distressing as Indian Ocean tsunamis are around, the average westerner somewhat cheeses the agony. It just seems, somehow, in rather poor taste ...)

But actually, if there's one thing I never tire of, it's dispensing advice. I believe I was an agony aunt for decades before I actually became one, always ready, willing and able to help, or, as my father prefers to describe it, 'Quick, confident, and wrong.' Several instances of this spring immediately to mind:

1) The time I was on an Italian train, in a 'no smoking' compartment, when an Italian youth lit up across the aisle from me. No one but a true-born agony aunt would have so instantly advised him to shove his cigarette where the sun fails to shine. I made my point eloquently and well, stressing the mitten he was handing to his cardiovascular system, the lining of his stomach and his taste-buds, making every morsel of his Italian Mamma's cooking turn to ashes in his mouth and I believe I owe my continued agony-relieving existence to two factors: (a) I can't speak Italian and (b) he couldn't speak English.

2) I was on Orpington train station one late afternoon when I saw a couple of teenage all-in wrestlers beating up on a weedy little guy with gelled hair, who was squealing for mercy. Despite the hair, which did give me pause (I mean, perhaps beating up on guys with gelled hair might make them think twice before making themselves quite so repellent; it might indeed, without my intervention, have been a turning-point in the weedy little guy's life) intervene I did, and very educational the whole business proved:

Lesson one: about fourteen hundred new adjectives added to one's (already extensive) vocabulary
Lesson two: little weedy guys are VERY fast runners
Lesson three: railwaymen at Orpington station are all either deaf and dumb or off on a fag break (but you knew that already, didn't you? THAT is why, should your platform be altered, your only hope of discovering it is through fluent sign language) especially when you really really need them
Lesson four: you can feel surprisingly little at five-foot-six-and-a-bit when surrounded by refugees from the World's Strongest Man competition, especially when you have rashly just told them to pick on someone their own size or you'll call the police (see lesson three above to realise just how funny THAT threat is)

3) And then there was that famous bit of advice I gave the Ulster Orchestra, with whom I worked for ten years. It so happened that I was playing with them, and then (the next day) with a London orchestra, both conducted by the same guy. Thus I was the only person to have been in a position to advise the Ulster Orchestra committee when I heard said conductor tell the London orchestra, 'Well, thank God for working with a decent orchestra at last! That Ulster Orchestra is a disaster zone!'

Now, thousands of cellists in my position would have thought, 'Not fair! Not true!' but only a genuine agony aunt in the making would have made the swift and brilliant decision to advise the Ulster Orchestra of exactly how their guest conductor had publicly slated them, thus making it possible (a) for them to fire the conductor and (b) for the conductor to discover what had happened and (c) for the conductor to get me fired from the London orchestra!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! See what just a smidgeon of the best-conceived advice can do??????????? With an example like mine, it's a miracle more people aren't setting themselves up as a aunts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Just look at the wonders it does for your (other) careers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But undoubtedly the triumph of my pre-agony-aunt advice-dispensing years was more personal, much more personal.

Back in the mists of time (the 1970s) I used to attend a summer music camp for five weeks (this was not one of your little National Youth Orchestra weekly jaunts. Things can really HAPPEN in five weeks.) This had the dual purpose of allowing my parents to be rid of the sound of my cello, and my sister's viola, prior to the return of the onslaught, and of our immersing ourselves in chamber and orchestral music, to the acute detriment of every other useful life-skill.

And in this camp, Brevard Music Camp, set in the gorgeous North Carolinian mountains, I met Doreen Da Silva, or Da Sliver, as she was about the width of a medium-sized silver walking stick. Doreen, of Portuguese extraction, clever and funny and gifted and my first best friend. She used to play (for, unlike me, she was multi-talented) the slow movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano in the cello hut, in the moonlight, while I wasted my time composing bad poetry. We also spent hours playing cello duets, going canoeing on the lake, listening to and playing in concerts and sitting by mountain streams talking about Ideals, and Life and Ambition and Politics (for she was rowdily left-wing and I at that point wasn't) and Religion (for she was ardently Catholic and I was uber-Protestant). I am the elder by two years, and always put first in the orchestra, until one week she surpassed me in the weekly audition and our positions were reversed. And what did Doreen do? She refused to take 'my' position!!!!!! That's the kind of friendship we are talking about here.

She worshipped from afar a top singer we termed, in code, 'Mr Magoo,' so people wouldn't know who she fancied, and I had a crush on our joint cello teacher, and I suppose in all of continental USA there were no soppier teenagers than us. We used to sit under the pine trees, fingers bruised from over-practice, drinking a sugary tooth-murdering fizzy drink called Mountain Dew and storing up energy with peanut-brittle, and we swore that our friendship would never die. I got up enough courage to tell 'Mr Magoo' to say good-bye to Doreen, and the bliss on her face when he did made her look, skinny as she was, like one of Raphael's Madonnas.

But our friendship did die, and this is how.

We studied in different conservatories, but remained close friends and, ten years after the old Brevard days, I asked her to be a bridesmaid for me, and (three years later) she dragged me back from London to be matron-of-honour to her. She was marrying, in Atlanta, a guy I will call Toby, because I'm sure that wasn't his name. It was wonderful to see Doreen again after several years, and I immediately clicked with my fellow bridesmaid, whom I will call Yuki, because this was almost twenty years ago. Yuki was a clever, gentle and lovely oriental girl, and we shared Doreen's family guestroom for the festivities. And everything seemed OK until the night before the wedding, when Doreen came to Yuki and self in the still of the night and said she was having second thoughts. Should she abandon the wedding or not? Was she really enough in love with Toby? -- who she said had been unfaithful to her already? Or should she, the night before the wedding, just call the whole thing off???????????

Now when the history books are written, let me be the first to say that she should have. A really wise matron-of-what's-it would have either agreed, or insisted on her sharing our doubts with her mother, despite her protests, and shoved the responsibility elsewhere. But, with really stunning judgement, my advice -- our advice, counting Yuki's -- was to carry on. Imagining the hurt and upset and expense, our advice was to carry on. I remember urging clemency for Toby's sins, God knows why, and I recall supporting Yuki's warning of the crushing blow to Doreen's and Toby's families. Yes, half the night was spent in agonised discussion of such minor stupidities, when all that was necessary was to CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Doreen's doubts should have been enough. I'm still kicking myself about it to this day, even though I was not competent to advise, being in my early 20s, and not really having met the guy.

Anyway, the marriage happened (out of doors, in a garden under a flightpath, which was one of Doreen's madder idealistic notions), and lasted a couple of years before they divorced, and I never heard from her again, though I sometimes call up her mother, just to say hi. She married again, of course, another musician in Germany, where she's led the cello section of an opera orchestra for ages. I remember the pang when her mother told me Doreen had a girl -- I have a girl -- and they'll never know each other. I remember those cool mountain morning rehearsals together and those long moonlit evenings in the cello hut, and Mr Magoo and the fire in her eyes when she snapped, 'I won't take it! It's Alice's place!' and the taste of those revolting peanut-butter brittles we used to imbibe with the Mountain Dew.

But she won't answer my letters and her mother doesn't know why. Twenty years ago, and she doesn't know why.

So, listen you stupid stubborn skinny Portuguese sardine, if somebody tells you out in Wurzburg (or is it Wurtsburg?) that you are the centre of this week's column then hey, just listen to this:

I voted for Kerry!!!!!!!!!!

The Pope is great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And I was so wrong, all those years ago: forgive me.

I love you forever (mine's a mountain dew)

Copyright © 14 January 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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